By Megan Fuller
Remember that show that was on a couple years ago, LOST? Many of us are probably thinking of it because, at the time of this writing, the Malaysian airliner has disappeared with no trace. Hopefully, by the time the April issue is out in print, that mystery will be solved. In the show, not only were the people on the plane physically lost, they lost their society. The passengers that crashed on the LOST island were from many different cultures, with different backgrounds, and a variety of skillsets – most of which weren’t particularly useful on a deserted island. In other words, their skills no longer had value and the knowledge they had on how to be successful were no longer relevant. Of course, this was not true for every single survivor; the doctor, the fisherman, and the hunter’s skills retained value, but the majority of the passengers were left dumbfounded as to what next steps they should take. Their path to success, which is generally defined by one’s culture, was destroyed and in order to survive a new path had to be forged.
Although LOST did entertain me (okay, mesmerize me) for 121 episodes, it is not the first time I’d been exposed to such a plot. In fact, we all have been–multiple times, perhaps in real life, or history class, or political science. One doesn’t have to be lost on a deserted island to have one’s skills lose value and path to success destroyed. Take for example, the European invasion of the Americas. As the Anglos moved to the New World they forced the indigenous off their lands and onto reservations. Just as in LOST, these actions made the indigenous’ traditional skills valueless and path of success null.
Way back in 1956, an anthropologist named AFC Wallace published an article describing a phenomena he called “revitalization movements.” Wallace was studying the literature about Handsome Lake, a Seneca prophet among 19th century Iroquois. The Iroquois had been forced on to reservations and were not allowed to pursue their traditional activities and were engaging in self-destructive behavior. Handsome Lake had a vision of a new way of life for his people, in which they could again be successful. He spread the word and, as his ideas took hold, the self-destructive behaviors lessened. He gave his people a new understanding of how to live a successful life within their new confines.
Wallace noticed the process through which this transformation occurred and began to look at other culture change movements. He discovered that these movements all followed the same process, which he then outlined. Some stress on the culture was the catalyst for each revitalization movement. The stress would cause some significant part of the population to no longer be able to achieve success with their traditional “mazeway,” a term Wallace used. I define it as: everything that we know about how to successfully live our lives within our culture.
The structure of the revitalization process, in cases where the full course is run, consists of five somewhat overlapping stages: 1. Steady State; 2. Period of Individual Stress; 3.Period of Cultural Distortion; 4. Period of Revitalization (in which occur the functions of mazeway reformulation, communication, organization, adaptation, cultural transformation, and routinization), and finally, 5. New Steady State.
There will probably never be a time when 100% of a population is successful, but during the Steady State stage the majority of the population is able to use their knowledge and skills to successfully create a happy life. During the Period of Individual Stress an increased number of people may experience poverty, poor health or other stresses for which usual coping techniques are not working. Still the majority of the population, although a smaller majority, is able to get by based on the traditional ways. In the Period of Cultural Distortion the stress has reached a larger part of the population and so there may be an increase in alcoholism, suicide, violence, crime, corruption or other self-destructive behaviors by individuals who feel stranded in their own environment. As these self-destructive behaviors increase, the stress on the society also rises — and less and less people care about following the rules of society because the rules no longer have any benefit for them. Without some intervention the society might collapse.
The saving measure is the Period of Revitalization within which the mazeway is reformulated. Usually a leader will emerge from the stressed group and articulate a new way of thinking and acting which will allow the society to be successful once again. Examples of such a leader are Jesus, Joseph Smith, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Hitler. I threw in Hitler here to show that revitalization movements aren’t always “good” and luckily, don’t always succeed. For the revitalization movement to be successful, the new mazeway has to be accepted as legitimate by the surrounding community. In the case of Nazism the global community rejected the new way of thinking as being an acceptable mazeway and had to kick butt to ensure the movement did not take hold. If the new mazeway is seen as a legitimate way of life by the folks on the inside and outside of the movement, a New Steady State will be reached.
News watchers may now be thinking about how many places there is evidence of the Period of Cultural Distortion: Venezuela, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Chechnya, Mexico, Egypt and everywhere the Arab Spring took hold, come to mind just off the top of my head. What about here in the good old USA? What stage are we in? Are Americans succeeding using our traditional mazeway of the American Dream? Hard work and education lead to a good job, the ability to own a home and car(s), and to generally be more successful than your parents. This was my understanding of how to achieve success in America as I was growing up. Does the great majority of the population feel that this model has worked for them or will work for their children or grandchildren? I haven’t done a poll, but anecdotes of lack of success, the way the country is so divided politically, and movements like Occupy Wall Street make me think the answer is no.
If there is still a majority for whom the aforementioned American Dream works it is a small majority, which leaves a large minority of Americans in need of a new mazeway. I know many people who cannot make ends meet with a single job, and so they paste together a living doing multiple jobs – some of which they may enjoy, others not so much. Many folks don’t feel like the jobs they do have are secure, having been through the Great Recession and seeing all the downsizing and restructuring in the work place. People with college degrees, even with graduate degrees, are working for small sums because that is all they can find. So many people lost their homes in the past few years and are not able to or not confident enough in their current situation to buy again. The house next door to me has been sitting empty since 2011: our neighbor gave it up because he wasn’t able to afford it after getting laid off. He found a another job, but at just half the salary. It seems as if the USA is also in a Period of Cultural Distortion as well, happily without the widespread violence in some of the other countries mentioned previously. I am eagerly waiting and watching for the introduction of a new mazeway.